How to enjoy fall festivities during the COVID pandemic

Some autumnal traditions can be riskier for your health than others.
Apple orchard.
Skip the tailgate and go for a socially-distanced orchard excursion this fall. Pixabay

This story was originally published on October 7, 2020.

Fall is finally here, and the cooler weather is a welcome relief from the summer heat. Even as the seasons change, COVID cases continue to spread, with two new Omicron strains killing and infecting hundreds of people each week in the US. While the chillier temperatures may kickstart your craving for taking gatherings indoors, it’s still important to do what you can to stop the spread of the virus. So bundle up with a cozy scarf, stay outside when you can, and check out a few festivities that will keep you and your family and friends safe and in the fall spirit this season.

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In general, the safest places to be are outdoor spaces where it’s easy to keep social distance, says Joshua Petrie, an epidemiology researcher at the University of Michigan.

“You would want to avoid big gatherings where there’s a lot of people, especially if they’re going to be in close contact for long periods of time,” says Petrie. “You would also want to assess how well you can do the risk-reduction techniques that we’re all used to now, like wearing masks and social distancing. And if it’s an outdoor activity, that’s going to be better.” The risk of any activity depends on the level of COVID in your area, he adds, so make sure to check how high your county’s cases are on this national tracker before you venture out.

Least risky: Hiking and apple picking

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the safest place to avoid catching or spreading COVID has been inside your own home with just your roommates or family. But the next best thing is to get outdoors, a safe distance from other people and with plenty of fresh air. Luckily, some of the best, most traditional fall activities—apple picking and hiking—line up perfectly with those guidelines.

Apple orchards hit every point for a safe fall activity. They are spacious, outdoor areas where it’s easy to maintain a safe social distance while scooping up some tasty autumn treats. Apple harvesting season started in early July, but there are still several varieties that are ripe for the picking well into October. Red Delicious apples are best picked early this month, and if you’re into baking, then look for some perfectly-ripe Cortlands—a favorite for apple pie. Look for orchards in your area that are following good sanitation practices and other health recommendations.

“It’s a good idea, especially if you’re going apple picking where you might run into a few more people, to bring your mask,” says Petrie. But overall, he says, as long as you’re able to maintain a safe social distance from others, apple-picking is pretty low-risk.

It’s also the perfect time of year to go on a fall hike and look at the changing autumn leaves, creating the gorgeous autumn landscape you know and love all across the US. If you live in the Northeast or Midwest, the best time to head outside and look for the best fall colors is in the first half of October. If you’re in the southern half of the country, the best is yet to come—Texas should be seeing the most colors for the region in early November.

Not too risky: Camping

If you’re craving a change of scenery, it’s probably still not wise to go jet setting. But camping in a nearby campground, or even your backyard, can still be a perfect nature getaway with your social bubble. But think twice about inviting people you haven’t seen in a while.

“Some people, when they go camping, tend to go in big groups, and they might not be people they live with, and they travel from all around to go camping together,” says Petrie. “That would be higher risk than just going out with your family or a smaller group. But in general, being outside and not being in contact with a lot of people should be pretty safe.”

If you’re exploring the wilderness outside of your backyard, be sure to check the local COVID rates where you’re coming from as well as where you’re headed.

Kind of risky: Tailgating

Tailgates, in general, may at first seem low risk—you’re in a large outdoor parking lot and you can just stay with your own group at your car. Still, when you’re eating and drinking you aren’t wearing a mask, and unless cars have a few spaces between them, you’re probably going to be less than six feet away from your neighbors. Shouting and singing also propel droplets that could contain the virus further than just talking quietly. Also, there’s a big difference between tailgating with your close family members or roommates and heading to a large college tailgate party—the latter poses a much bigger risk.

“[Tailgating has] being outside going for it, and if you’re doing mask-wearing and social distancing it’s going to be relatively low risk, especially if it’s one car with your family or the people you’re normally in contact with or a small group of close friends,” says Petrie. “But the more people you bring in, especially if they’re traveling from other areas, it’s going to be higher risk.”

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One solution early in the pandemic, developed by the architectural firm Populous for the Milwaukee Bucks, used stacked shipping containers converted into viewing boxes where four to six people could watch the game streamed to large LED displays. The Bucks also considered turning a parking garage into a giant ticketed drive-in theater with 360-degree screens.

If your team isn’t offering a safe tailgate option, there are still ways of enjoying the game with friends and family. You can host a virtual watch party and hang out on video chat while watching from home. If you’ve got a backyard, set up a mini-tailgate with a small guest list. After all, cornhole and cheering for your team isn’t limited to a parking lot.

Risky: Thanksgiving and Halloween parties

The holiday season is fast approaching, and some people are still planning on hosting Halloween parties or Thanksgiving dinners for their families and friends. Some things public health officials recommend for gauging how risky an indoor event might be are local COVID infection rates, the number of people at the gathering, the location, and the duration. Tighter spaces, high guest counts, and long hangouts all contribute to increased risk of spread.